Printer Friendly

Aquinas on poetry and theology.

  The hiding of truth in figures is useful for the exercise of
  thoughtful minds. Summa Theologiae, I, q. I, a. 9, ad 2.

WHAT BEST UNCOVERS THE TRUTH OF THINGS? For most people, I suspect, the obvious answer to this question is our capacity to think, the ordinary yet extraordinary gift of human reason. But, if that's the case, what are we to say about poetry in relation to truth? Does the genius of poetry serve to reveal truth or does it obscure it? This question is almost as old as imaginative literature itself. As one commentator puts it,
  Plato raised it early, and answered it negatively. He denied poetry
  any claim to truth, in both the logical and the moral senses of the
  word: --the logical, because poetry, according to him, imitates an
  imitation of reality and is thus thrice removed from the truth of
  the Ideas; the moral, because poetry is a lie, a fiction that "feeds
  and waters the passions instead of drying them up." Aristotle was
  the better philosopher here. He saw that poetry grew out of man's
  mimetic and harmonic instincts, and that, though dealing in fictions,
  it was akin to philosophy in its adumbrations of the universal:
  "Poetry, therefore, is more philosophical than history, for poetry
  tends to express the universal, while history describes the
  particular." (1)

Aquinas, as we know, is often inclined to take the side of Aristotle and, in this matter, he has no hesitation in emphasizing the mimetic genius of the art. He writes for example, "Poetry makes use of metaphors for the sake of representation since as human beings we naturally take delight in representation." (2) And he says further, "The poet's task is to lead us to something virtuous by some excellent description." (3) But elsewhere Aquinas speaks of poetry or poetic knowledge as being "deficient in truth" (defectum veritatis). (4) What can he possibly mean by such a declaration? At first hearing, it sounds like a rather unlikely statement for a Christian artist and theologian to make. Is Aquinas not aware that divine revelation itself, in its final and definitive expression, makes use again and again of the language of poetry?

Aquinas, as it happens, has no hesitation whatever in asserting that in Holy Scripture "spiritual truths are fittingly conveyed with bodily metaphors." (5) He cites a passage from the Old Testament in which, through one of the prophets, the God of Israel declares: "I have multiplied visions, and I have used likenesses by ministry of the prophets" (Hos 2:10). (6) And, then, in a further, clear affirmation of the language of metaphor, Aquinas notes: "God provides for everything according to the capacity of its nature. It is natural for human beings to come to intellectual truths through sense perception, since all our knowledge takes its origin from the senses." (7)

Aquinas, when addressing the subject of poetry in these texts, is clearly affirmative in his judgment. Why, then, does he find it necessary elsewhere to speak about poetry as deficient in truth? To answer this question it will be helpful to understand the context in which the phrase defectum veritatis occurs. In the Summa, for example, when Aquinas employs the phrase, his concern is to compare poetic knowledge and expression with sacred knowledge and expression. (8) And he is impressed by the fact that poetry, unlike theology, tends by its very nature to resist abstraction. In that sense, it remains inaccessible to speculative thinking. He writes, "Poetic knowledge is about things which because of their deficiency of truth (propter defectum veritatis) cannot be laid hold of by reason." (9) Walter Ong, commenting on this statement, remarks,
  [Aquinas] is aware of the unsatisfactory and inconclusive nature
  of discussion about any poem. Because of its peculiar insistence
  on remaining concreted within the act of apprehension itself, a
  poem resists the very abstraction by which we would understand
  it. Abstraction, in one way or another, destroys it, dissolves it
  away. So we must content ourselves largely with simply apprehending
  the poem by reading or hearing it read, and as for any strict
  understanding of a poem, we must content ourselves with thinking and
  talking around it. Thomas does not put it in exactly the sam
  words, but when he speaks of its "deficiency of truth," he is
  concerned with the same thing about a poem which prompts Archibald
  MacLeish to observe that "A poem should not mean / But be." (10)

That last suggestion of Ong is immediately striking, but it represents, at best, I would say, only a part of the truth. It does not represent Aquinas's entire thinking on the question of meaning in a work of art. Nowadays, in certain schools of literary criticism, it is common for a stark distinction to be made between the truth of logic and the truth of poetry, as if the latter were entirely outside the realm of logical discourse and reason. But Thomas, in his Commentary on the Posterior Analytics of Aristotle, speaks of what he calls "poetic logic." (11) It is true that he thinks of it as occupying a place below that of the logic of scientific demonstration, and below even that of dialectic and rhetoric. Nevertheless, the art of poetry, he maintains, is still somehow within the domain of reason and logic. (12)

Meaning, therefore, for Aquinas, is certainly not absent from the special discourse that constitutes a poem. He writes, "poems partake of reason--by which man is man--to a greater degree than other mechanical works." (13) These statements clearly imply a much more positive view of reason, in its relation to art, than the view that has become dominant since the romantic period. During that time the majority of artists and poets reacted with understandable but, at times, exaggerated passion against rationalism. Aquinas, in contrast, writing prior to the development of these somewhat extreme, modern dichotomies, does not hesitate to speak of "right reason" in relation to the making of works of art. (14) That confidence in reason--that Thomistic confidence--inspired Flannery O'Connor to make the following memorable remark: "When I write, I am a maker. I think about what I am making. St. Thomas called art reason in the making. When I write I feel I am engaged in the reasonable use of the unreasonable. In art the reason goes wherever the imagination goes. We have reduced the use of reason terribly. You say a thing is reasonable and people think you mean it's safe. What's reasonable is seldom safe and always exciting." (15)


St. Thomas, in his Commentary on the Metaphysics, speaks of "theological poets." He writes, "Among the Greeks, the first who were famous for their learning were certain theological poets, so called because of the songs they wrote about the gods." (16) Thomas mentions Orpheus, Museus, and Linus: "These poets deal to some extent with the nature of things by means of figurative representations and myths" (Isti autem poetae quibusdam aenigmatibus fabularum aliquid de rerum natura tractaverunt). (17) So Aquinas allows that the "fabulous stories" told by the poets do tell us something about "the nature of things." But he is clearly not greatly persuaded about the value of "representations and myths." It is no accident, I would say, that in the same text he goes on to refer to "a story" that, far from communicating truth, revealed something totally false. Meister Eckhart, the Dominican preacher and mystic of the fourteenth century, although a disciple of Aquinas, is much more positive about the usefulness of the poet's parables and stories. He writes, "All the ancient theologians and poets generally used to teach about God, nature and ethics by means of parables. The poets did not speak in an empty and fabulous way, but they intentionally and very attractively and properly taught about the natures of things divine, natural and ethical by metaphors and allegories. This is quite clear to anyone who takes a good look at the poet's stories." (18) The fact that poetry, and indeed all the creative arts, can reveal critically important truths about human life by the imaginative use of metaphors and allegories, is something happily taken for granted in the modern period. The Irish poet Seamus Heaney writes, "It is precisely this masquerade of fictions and ironies and fantastic scenarios that can draw us out and bring us close to ourselves. The paradox of the arts is that they are all made up and yet allow us to get at truths about who and what we are or might be." (19)

Aquinas was living in an age that tended to exalt philosophy over poetry. The scholastic theologians were not unaware, of course, of the great classics of Graeco-Roman civilization, but they were living in an age that, in certain ways, "had turned its back on the Classics." (20) According to E. K. Rand, "In the battles between philosophy and poetry, which Plato calls an ancient battle and which crops us in various periods of human history ... the thirteenth century witnessed the triumph of philosophy over letters." (21)

Painting, poetry, music, all the different creative arts possess integrity and significance within their own order. That goes without saying. But, if judged by the medieval classification of values to which Aquinas adhered, poetry, viewed as a creative art of fantasy, when compared with speculative thinking, or with the science of theology, must be content to yield ground, and accept a relatively minor position. As soon as it is viewed under the strict academic gaze of medieval scholasticism, poetry will appear, in spite of its undoubted capacity to charm and delight, as an infirma doctrina. Accordingly, in the scholastic world of St. Thomas, poetry occupies a place at the opposite end of human knowledge from that of theology. It tends to dip, in his opinion, below the range of human reason whereas theology soars above it.

That said, however, St. Thomas was clearly struck by the fact that these two very different forms of human knowledge both rely, and to a significant degree, on metaphor. Reflecting on this phenomenon, in his Commentary on the Sentences, Thomas gives space to an objection that appears to be directly opposed to his own thesis. It reads, "Widely differing sciences ought not to share the same method. But poetry, which contains the least truth, differs to the greatest degree from this science [theology] which is most true. Therefore, since poetry proceeds by metaphorical sayings, the method of the science of theology should be different." (22) In his answer, Aquinas makes clear at once that theology has manifest need of metaphor. Nevertheless, he seems both to agree and to disagree with the objection raised. He writes, "Poetic knowledge is of things which cannot be grasped by reason because of a deficiency of truth. Hence reason must be drawn off to the side by certain likenesses (quod quasi quibusdam similitudinibus ratio seducatur). Theology, however, is about things that are above our reason, and so the symbolic mode is common to both since neither is proportioned to our reason." (23) Nowadays it tends to be taken for granted that poetry or poetic knowledge is something that cannot be grasped by reason. But what is less often acknowledged and what is, for that reason, worthy of note here, is St. Thomas 's insistence that theology likewise operates on what has been called by Ong "the periphery of human intellection." (24) In the practice of theology a point is reached where the abstract, rational approach to God, or to thinking about God, simply does not seem to work or, at least, not as well as we might have hoped. We have no choice but to come to terms with a certain unmanageability. And that is why we find both spiritual authors and theologians drawing again and again, as if by instinct, on the life-blood of metaphor. (25) Poetry and theology, although manifestly different from each other, appear again and again to make similarly impossible demands on human reason. Ong writes,
  Poetry really demands too much of the reason in its insistence both
  that it be understood and that it be understood somehow without
  resort to abstraction. From this fact arises the strain ... the
  state of tension in which poetry leaves reason. ... Thomas's
  explanation of the use of metaphor in theology moves along quite
  another, but a similar line. In the science of theology based on
  Christian revelation, as well as in the science of poetry, the
  intellect must come upon its objective by a kind of flank movement.
  It grasps it only by the periphery. (26)

Clearly Thomas is not thinking here of the truths of the faith "to which even natural reason can attain, such as the truth that God exists." (27) No--what Thomas has in mind are those "truths concerning God which completely exceed the power of human reason," (28) the mystery of the Incarnation, for example, and the mystery of the Holy Trinity, truths to which unaided human reason simply cannot hope to attain. Nevertheless, for all the bewilderment provoked, there is no inherent contradiction in these great and saving truths. In the end, believers are able to accept with strong faith and conviction the paradox of a God who is One and yet Three, and the paradox of an infinite, unseen God who has, in the Incarnate Word, become finite and visible.

When, however, in Christian revelation or in Christian theology, these mysteries are given expression in finite, human language, an almost intolerable pressure is placed on the limited, finite capacity of mere words. This pressure, in the opinion of the English poet W. H. Auden is altogether too great for the art of poetry to bear. Human imagination, he declares, simply cannot comprehend the paradox of a God who assumes flesh, and becomes a human being. So there is "something a bit questionable," Auden writes, "about all works of art which make overt Christian references." (29)
  The Incarnation, the coming of Christ in the form of a servant
  who cannot be recognized by the eye of flesh and blood, but only
  by the eye of faith, puts an end to all claims of the imagination
  to be the faculty which decides what is truly sacred and what is
  profane. ... Christ appears looking just like any other man, yet
  claims that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and that no man
  can come to God the Father except through Him. The contradiction
  between the profane appearance and the sacred assertion is impassible
  to the imagination. (30)

The message is clear. Poetry, as Auden sees it, is struck dumb before the mystery of theWord incarnate. In his opinion, the unspeakable paradox of the revelation of the Son of God simply cannot be contained within the aesthetic realm. And so, he is forced to the conclusion--astonishing though it sounds--that "poetry is small beer." (31) This unexpected downgrading by the English poet of the role and power of poetry with respect to paradox-religion might seem to indicate agreement between his way of thinking and that of Aquinas. But the paradox inherent in Christian religion that, in Auden's opinion, clearly stifles the voice of the poet is the very thing that, in the case of Aquinas, actually makes possible his finest verse, a point wonderfully illustrated in the following short stanza from Sacris solemniis.

Here, mere words are being asked to express the impossible and possible paradox of a God who not only takes on human flesh but actually offers his flesh and blood to be consumed by the least among his followers. It is no small achievement for Aquinas, as an imaginative author, that in the original Latin, the words and lines of this stanza actually sing. In other words, the very paradox that, in Auden's opinion, places too much strain on the poet's gift of imagination, acts in the case of Aquinas as nothing less than a spur to creativity, a kind of sharp, artistic challenge. Thomas Aquinas, known for centuries as a thinker of outstanding clarity, a true master of logic and reason, is also, it now begins to appear, a quite remarkable poet of paradox.


(1.) Victor M. Hamm, Language, Truth and Poetry (Milwaukee, 1980)53-54.

(2.) ST, I, q.1, a. 9, ad 1.

(3.) In Primum librum posteriorum analyticorum Aristotelis expositio, ch. 1, lect. 1, 6, Leonine vol. 1, 140.

(4.) See Scriptum super sententiis, bk. 1, q.1, a. 5, ad 3. See also ST, I--II, q.101, a. 2, ad 2.

(5.) ST, I, q.1, a. 9.

(6.) ST, I, q.1, a. 9, sed contra.The same text from Hosea is quoted by Aquinas later in the Summa (II--II, q.173) when reflecting on the nature of prophecy. There he explains the special role that "pictures in the imagination" can play in prophetic revelation.

(7.) ST, I, q.1, a. 9.

(8.) ST, I--II, q.101, a.2, ad 2.

(9.) Prologue, In Primum librum Sententiarum Petri Lombardi, q.1, a. 5 ad 3, Parma vol. 6, 9.

(10.) Walter Ong, "Wit and Mystery: A Revaluation," Speculum 22 (July 1947): 326.

(11.) See In Primum librum postoriorum analyticorum, bk. 1, lect.1, 6, 128.

(12.) Ibid. Certain individual comments Aquinas makes about art and poetry might seem to suggest that his opinion corresponds with modern and contemporary views on the autonomy of art. He writes, for example, "The value of things produced by art does not consist in their being good for human appetite, but in the good of the works of art themselves." See ST, I--II, q. 57, a. 4. To read this statement, and conclude that Thomas is an advocate of art for art's sake would, of course, be a huge misunderstanding. The entire system of Aquinas is based upon finality. He has no scruple, therefore, in declaring that art "seems to be nothing more than a particular procedure established by reason whereby human acts, in prescribed ways, attain their appropriate end." See In primum librum posteriorum analyticorum, bk. 1, lect. 1, 1.

(13.) See Sententia libri ethicorum, bk. 9, lect. 7, 1167 b 33, in Opera omnia, Leonine edition, vol. 47/2 (Rome, 1969), 525.

(14.) ST, I--II, q.57, a. 3.

(15.) Conversations with Flannery O'Connor (1959), ed. Betsy Lochridge (London, 1987), 39.

(16.) In Libros metaphysicorum Aristotelis expositio, bk. 1, lect. 4, no.83, Marietti edition (Rome, 1950), 25.

(17.) Ibid.

(18.) Meister Eckhart, Essential Sermons, trans. E. Colledge and B. McGinn (London, 1981), 93.

(19.) Seamus Heaney, Finders-Keepers: Selected Prose 1971-2001 (London, 2003), 68-69.

(20.) See E. K. Rand, "A Friend of the Classics in the times of Saint Thomas Aquinas" in Melanges Mandonnet: Etudes d'histoire litteraire et doctrinale du moyen age, vol. 2 (Paris, 1930), 261.

(21.) Ibid. And see also 274-75. This claim is only partly accurate. As well as an undoubtundoubted distrust in the medieval monasteries, there was also a manifest admiration for pagan literature. See Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, trans. C. Misrahi (New York, 1961).

(22.) Prologue, In Primum librum Sententiarum, q. I, a. 5, obj 3, Parma vol. 6, 8.

(23.) Ibid., q. I, a. 5, ad 3, p.9. In the Summa, Thomas writes, "Just as human reason fails to grasp poetical expressions on account of their being lacking in truth, so does it fail to grasp divine things perfectly, on account of the sublimity of the truth they contain: and therefore in both cases there is need of signs by means of sensible figures." See ST, I--II, q.101, a. 2, ad 2.

(24.) Ong, "Wit and Mystery," 325.

(25.) Ibid., 327.

(26.) Ibid.

(27.) Summa contra gentiles, bk. 1, ch. 3, Leonine vol. 13, 7.

(28.) Ibid.

(29.) W. H. Auden, "Postscript: Christianity and Art," in Selected Essays (New York, 1956), 218.

(30.) Ibid., 217.

(31.) Ibid., 216.

Panis angelicus               Now the bread of angels
fit panis hominum,            feeds the sons of men.
dat panis caelicus            Figures and types are fled,
figuris terminum;             never to come again.
O res mirabilis!              O what a wondrous thing!
Manducat Dominum              The poor,  the humble, the lowly
pauper, servus, et humilis.   consume the Master and King.
COPYRIGHT 2013 Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2013 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Murray, Paul
Publication:Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture
Date:Mar 22, 2013
Previous Article:History, secularity, and the problem of Catholic seeing.
Next Article:Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych: satire, religion, and the criticism of denial.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters